Ninja Gaiden
  • Genre:
    • Platformer
  • Developer:
    • Tecmo
  • Publishers:
    • Tecmo (NES)
    • Hudson (PCE)
  • Released:
    NES
    • JP 12/09/1988
    • US March 1989
    • UK 08/15/1991
    PCE
    • JP 01/24/1992
Score: 80%

This review was published on 02/01/2017.

Ninja Gaiden is a side-scrolling platform video game developed and published by Tecmo for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Famicom. It was originally released in Japan on December 9, 1988, North America in March 1989, and Europe on August 15, 1991. Hudson also published a PC Engine port of the game in Japan on January 24, 1992. The game was known as Ninja Ryukenden in Japan, which roughly translates to Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword. In Europe, the game was called Shadow Warriors, because people there at the time felt that the word "ninja" had violent connotations to it, and so the word was removed or changed in most European media back then. Originally, Ninja Gaiden began as an arcade game released in 1988, but this version is completely different from the NES one, being that it's a beat 'em up instead of a platformer. This review is going to be focusing mostly on the NES version, which is a classic.

Image

Throughout the 1980s, there was a bit of a ninja craze in North America. At the time, the people there were completely obsessed with ninjas. This resulted in countless media with ninjas being created, such as the Enter the Ninja movie in 1981, and the Shinobi arcade game by Sega in 1987. It was during this time that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went from a mere comic to a highly successful and popular franchise that consisted of toys, an animated television show, and video games. The silly thing about all this was how ninjas were often depicted in action packed roles, even though real life ninjas were stealthy assassins. The folk at Tecmo decided to take full advantage of the ninja craze in North America by creating Ninja Gaiden. Gaiden is a Japanese word that roughly means "side story," but it wasn't a spinoff or sequel to anything. According to one of the game's designers, Masato Kato, the staff named it Ninja Gaiden for American audiences "because it sounded cool." At any rate, the NES version of Ninja Gaiden had an amazing reception, garnering praise from all major publications at the time. That should come as no surprise, because it's a darn good game.

Image

If you sit on the title screen for a bit, you'll be treated to a breathtaking animated cinematic that gives some story context to the game. It opens with a duel between two ninjas, and as is the case with most duels, only one of them came back alive. The man that lost the fight was the father of a ninja named Ryu Hayabusa, the protagonist of this gaiden. The day after his father's disappearance, Ryu discovered an ominous letter that his dad left him. In the letter, Ryu's father told him about the life or death duel and the possibility that he may not return. He went on to write that, should he die, Ryu is to take the Dragon Sword of the Hayabusa family and go to America to see an archeologist named Walter Smith. Confused and thirsty for revenge, Ryu dawns his ninja garb and sets forth on a journey to the United States of America. The rest of the plot is a little cheesy, but there are countless twists and turns to keep you invested.

Image

This game was revolutionary at the time due to its usage of elaborate cinematic sequences to convey the story. Ninja Gaiden was one of the first games to convey its story in such a manner. The company referred to this as "Tecmo Theater." Basically, on top of the amazing introductory cinematic scene, there are various other cut scenes peppered all throughout the game that slowly reveal more and more of the narrative. These scenes typically appear before and after each stage, or "Act" as the game calls them, and they come in the form of large, visually impressive anime styled artwork with text beneath them for character dialogue. Almost all the scenes feature dramatic close-ups and alternate camera angles, as if you were watching a movie. Most of the animations for these sequences consist of character portraits sliding around and slow camera pans of still images, which while simple, is effective at furthering the cinematic feel. Considering the limitations of the hardware, Tecmo did a mighty fine job. Also, you can skip the cut scenes if you don't want to watch them.

Image

You control Ryu as he travels across America to get his revenge. He can run, duck, jump, and swing his sword to attack nearby enemies. There's no run button here, because you're always running headfirst into action. The controls are as precise as a ninja, perfectly responding to every single one of your inputs. Speaking of ninjas, Ryu's skills as a ninja are clearly demonstrated by his ability to cling to almost any wall or wall-like surface. Once attached to a wall, Ryu can then jump off it, possibly onto other nearby walls. By jumping back and forth between two walls, Ryu can reach new heights. If there's a ladder on any of the walls, he can simply climb up or down them without jumping off. The ability to cling to walls adds a whole new dimension to the action, giving you more ways to evade enemy attacks. Jumping off walls, or wall jumping, also became quite prevalent in newer video games, but Ninja Gaiden was one of the first to do it.

Image

In addition to his sword, Ryu has access to special secondary weapons. It basically works nearly the same as the sub-weapon system in the classic Castlevania games. In other words, you destroy candlesticks, sometimes stationary insects or birds, to reveal a power-up item with a special weapon, and once acquired, you use it by holding up and pressing the attack button. Most of these are projectiles that enable Ryu to attack from a distance, like weak throwing stars that travel in a straight line, a windmill throwing star that comes back like a boomerang, and a spell that launches a fire wheel in an upwards curve. However, one of the special weapons isn't a weapon at all, and is instead a technique in which Ryu does a spinning slash in the air, which kills most bosses in seconds. The downside to the spinning slash is that it's automatically executed whenever you attack while in midair, wasting Ryu's precious Spiritual Strength. Spiritual Strength acts as the ammo for all these special weapons, and it's found in the same candlestick objects. Other power-ups include temporary invincibility and an hourglass that briefly freezes enemies. While derivative, Ninja Gaiden's power-ups are neat, as they add a little depth without interfering with the action.

Image

Initially, the game might look an awful lot like the original NES Castlevania by Konami, what with the interface and power-ups reminiscent of sub-weapons, but it plays quite differently. The combination of Ryu's high movement speed and most enemies dying in one hit results in lightning fast pacing. This gives the game a visceral feel, as the high octane action never comes to a halt. Further adding to that visceral feel is the music, which is catchy and will get you pumped to kick some serious butt. Each Act is broken up into two, three, or four smaller stages, all of which are linear romps with plenty of enemies and hazards to keep you occupied. The landscapes look nice and are varied, with cities, mountains, forests, jungles, ancient ruins, and more. Even though everything is viewed from the side, the environments are slightly tilted, giving the illusion of depth. Everything looks and sounds great, plus the stages are good fun whenever you aren't dying.

Image

With Ryu's massive life bar and infinite continues, the game starts off rather easy and forgiving, but it does get brutally difficult later on. While Ryu's lengthy life bar allows him to take quite a bit of punishment, bottomless pits still kill him instantly. On top of that, he gets knocked back quite a ways whenever an enemy or projectile hits him. The game heavily exploits this fact in its later stages by having annoying aerial foes, like birds, constantly knock Ryu into pits as they dart around the screen. To make matters worse, enemies continually respawn if you scroll the screen back and forth. Sometimes, they'll infinitely respawn even if you don't move at all, putting you in a very tight spot. All of this can be overcome with a little memorization, but things get really bad in the game's final Act. It's here where you'll have to survive three of the game's toughest stages, followed by three bosses in a row, and if you die even once, you're sent all the way back to the beginning of the Act. Most of the other Acts have checkpoints, but this one doesn't, and it's downright unfair.

Image

Even though they're the same game, there are some pretty significant differences between the NES and PC Engine versions of Ninja Gaiden. The PC Engine is a 16-bit system that's substantially more powerful than the 8-bit NES, so the graphics are much more advanced. This results in the PC Engine port having a greater color palette. The graphics have also been completely redrawn, with many of the enemy sprites and backgrounds being changed into different things. For example, some of the signs in the first stage were changed into air vents in the PC Engine version. Parallax scrolling backgrounds were also added to the PC Engine port, but they're incredibly choppy. The music is also quite a bit different, featuring lots of alternate tracks that are mostly okay, but usually not as good as the ones from the NES original. Some of the mechanics have also been adjusted, like you can keep your special ninja ability in between Acts. The hit detection is a bit worse, though, and the final boss is much harder. There are various other tweaks, but those are the highlights. Overall, the NES version sounds and plays better, but the PC Engine port certainly looks better.

Image

Really, the game's only issue is that it gets far too hard near the end, but everything else about it is great. The pacing is excellently fast, the controls are incredibly precise, the stages are tightly designed, the graphics are solid, and the music is fantastic. Up there with Super Mario Bros. 3, Ninja Gaiden is one of the most renowned NES games of all time. I really don't have to sing its praises, because not only was the game a big hit when it first came out, but it has remained popular all these years. It's practically a part of gaming culture now, and for good reason.

Word Count: 1,785

Tweet